The first time anyone uses the word to describe her, Brooke laughs it off. It's not like she really minds, but she's thirteen, and 'gay' is practically a dirty word. Besides, everyone knows she's not - she's a cheerleader, she's popular, she likes boys. A lot. She doesn't stop kissing Peyton, in Peyton's room in between talk of clothes and makeup, or holding hands when they go shopping, but she accepts Steve Robards' invitation to a party that weekend, and she lets him put his hand up her skirt before she has to excuse herself to go throw up in the bushes.
Peyton looks at her kind of funny the next day, nursing a hangover over ice cream, but Brooke puts her arm around Peyton's shoulders, and pretends she doesn't remember.
Sophomore year, Theresa is accused of staring in the girls' locker room, and things get kind of weird. Brooke refuses to kick her off the cheerleading squad, and sometimes it feels like the only person on her side is Peyton (and Bevin, who mostly looks like she doesn't understand what the problem is). Three of the girls threaten to quit, and Brooke tells them to go ahead; she's almost finished retooling the choreography when they show up at practice a week later, and she lets them back, mostly because the new routine isn't nearly as good as the old one.
Afterwards, she strips out of her uniform while Theresa is standing next to her, and that's not exactly the end of it, but it helps. On the way home, Peyton curls her fingers around Brooke's, and smiles at her like she's proud.
Nathan likes watching his girlfriend make out with other girls.
There are rules for this kind of thing, carefully navigated - it's okay if you're drunk, it's okay if it's a dare, it's okay if you sleep with a lot of boys and wear the right clothes and have the right friends, it's okay if it doesn't actually mean anything. When half the basketball team is watching, it doesn't feel right to Brooke, but mostly she can close her eyes and forget about everything except Peyton, anyway.
"That's so gay," Tim says, but he's smiling, kind of dazed, and she wonders when being gay became a good thing. She's still not sure it is, thinks it probably wouldn't be if he really meant it.
"That's so hot," Nathan says, and leans over her to kiss Peyton. Brooke squirms away, and tells herself she's only uncomfortable physically.
Later, when most of the team is either passed out or searching for porn among Nathan's collection, he glances back at her and raises an eyebrow as he leads Peyton upstairs, and she pretends she doesn't see.
"Want to make out?" Bevin asks. It seems like it comes out of nowhere, but it probably doesn't. Brooke hasn't really been paying attention.
She looks over at Peyton, maybe hesitates a little too long, and Bevin drains her glass. "I'm not gay," she defends, keeping her hands carefully away from where they could accidentally touch someone else's. "I just like girls, is all."
Brooke isn't sure if there's a difference, but she's not really in the mood to debate. Instead, she smiles at Bevin, and scoots a little closer to Peyton. Peyton looks bored, like she always does lately, and Brooke wonders if Peyton would smile or leave if she repeated Bevin's offer.
She decides not to find out. She's never been great with rejection at the best of times, and somehow she thinks hearing it from Peyton would be worse than anything.
Sometimes, Brooke thinks about when she and Peyton were kids, and wishes things were that simple again.
For one perfect summer, they almost are, and then Lucas comes back, and Brooke's surprised by how much she really doesn't care. Peyton says she doesn't, either, but her hand falls short of Brooke's as they sit cross-legged on the floor, and her knees never knock against Brooke's underneath the lunch table. Brooke tries waiting for things to return to normal, but it doesn't quite work, and she throws away a dozen half-scribbled notes as their history teacher drones on and on about the conquest of something or other.
Nathan and Haley walk hand in hand in the corridor, gaze sickeningly at each other when they think nobody is looking, and Brooke stands carefully a foot away from Peyton at all times.
She isn't ready to get her heart broken again.
"Sometimes," Peyton says, while she and Brooke lay side by side in bed, not quite touching, "I envy them, you know? I wish I had someone who cared that much about me."
Brooke isn't sure if she's talking about Lucas or Jake or nobody in particular, so she doesn't ask.
"I wish I could be that brave."
"How do you take a chance like that?" Brooke asks Haley, and Haley smiles, twisting the ring on her finger.
"You just do."
Peyton has a tank top, a four-letter word scrawled across it. Art doesn't lie, right?
"So," Brooke says, "you and Anna," and Peyton looks at her thoughtfully.
"It wasn't like that, really," Peyton says. "I think I was just the only friend she had."
"Should I be jealous?" she asks, and when Peyton smiles, Brooke decides to be brave for the both of them, and she tugs Peyton forward.
"It depends," Peyton says, and when Brooke speaks again, her mouth is only an inch away from Peyton's.
She doesn't need to answer, really.
Brooke holds Peyton's hand as they walk to class, but that's nothing new, and nobody really catches on until she pins Peyton against her locker and shoves her tongue down her throat.
There are whispers, but fewer than she expected, and Principal Turner only murmurs a few words about appropriate school behaviour and public displays of affection before letting her off with a warning. Nobody spray paints anything on her locker, and nobody hurls any three-letters words as an insult, and nobody demands she be kicked off next year's cheerleading squad. Nathan doesn't even have the decency to look surprised. A week later, Steve Robards drives his parents' car into the pool, and what little gossip there was about her and Peyton stops altogether. It's almost a disappointment, really.
But then Peyton's dad doesn't let them sleep in the same room when she stays over, and Brooke gets to sneak in after he's asleep, crawling under the covers and letting her fingers play underneath the hem of the shirt Peyton wears to bed.
And it's not so bad.